There’s a scene in “Blackfish” that depicts how whalers used to separate killer whale (or orca) calves from their mothers. It’s an incredibly disturbing thing to watch, being somewhat reminiscent of 2009’s “The Cove” (a shocking exposé about dolphin poaching in Japan). In an illustration, we see how the orcas strategize to protect their young. Luring the whaling ships away from their families by swimming in one direction, the males are chased into a channel while the mothers and babies swim a different route to elude detection. This tactic would have worked, but a helicopter thwarts the orcas’ plan and the boats are redirected to corral the calves, who are shipped inland to become celebrities in a hugely profitable industry: aquatic theme parks.
The most unsettling thing about this wrangling process, which is diagrammed here like some sort of post-game analysis, is how hyperconscious the orcas – which are also referred to as Blackfish by some longshoremen – are of their environment. This can’t fully be appreciated until later in the film when renowned neuroscientist Lori Marino elaborates on the emotional complexities of these creatures and the psychological scarring that they can develop from being in long-term captivity. In one instance, we see a captive female orca who’s just been separated from her four-year-old calf retreat to the far end of the pool and cry incessantly for her young one. It turns out that she’s using a long-range frequency that has never been recorded from the creatures in their natural habitat; it’s heartbreaking to learn that, in the wild, the calf would have remained by its mother’s side for its entire life.
During an interview with one of the retired whalers, now a weathered old-timer, he recounts his experiences dating back almost four decades. He admits with teary-eyed regret that capturing the orca calves was the worst thing he’s ever done.
“Blackfish”, which is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, focuses on Orlando’s SeaWorld and its tentpole attraction, a six-ton orca named Tilikum, who was taken into captivity at about four years of age in 1983. One less-advertised tidbit about Tilikum, though by now it’s common knowledge, is that he’s been involved in three human deaths: the first, a trainer at Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, and two at SeaWorld – one, a drifter who took an ill-advised after hours dip in Tilikum’s tank in 1999, and the other, a veteran whale trainer named Dawn Brancheau, who was mauled during a relationship building exercise in February 2010.
While Cowperthwaite’s film certainly elicits sympathy for these human victims (which also includes a trainer who was killed by a different orca at Spain’s Loro Parque – the whale was on loan from SeaWorld), remembering them as extremely passionate – and compassionate – people, it makes a strong argument that we shouldn’t tamper with what we don’t fully understand. Experts believe that psychosis, which could have developed over years of captivity, was the cause of Tilikum’s unpredictable behavior. SeaWorld, which declined interview requests for the film, maintains that the attack was triggered by trainer error. Interviews with at least a dozen ex-SeaWorld trainers show vehement support of the former theory, and video documentation shows us that several close calls with other whales might have served as an effective cautionary measure if made public sooner. One such tape shows us a trainer who is dragged repeatedly to the bottom of the pool by an orca; he survives only because he remains incredibly calm until it releases him.
As we get a better understanding of the emotional trauma that being separated from their families can cause (in addition to this, without ample space to move around, Tilikum – the resident sperm donor for the park – is repeatedly abused by aggressive females), and learn about the orcas’ profound sense of kinship, “Blackfish” shifts into an unexpected, unsettling observation of human nature. For those who flock to places like SeaWorld, this taut, thoughtful, often heart breaking film will offer a different perspective on this multi-billion dollar industry; for others, it will give insight into a being that is as sensitive as it is powerful. To paraphrase a statement made by one ex-trainer: “One day we’ll look back at places like SeaWorld and think to ourselves – how barbaric”. One way or another, this should be on your required viewing list for 2013.